How Volunteering Can Enhance Your Writing

One Sunday morning, I was sitting in church waiting for the service to begin. Scanning through the church bulletin for upcoming events, I found an advertisement for Vacation Bible School — a week-long event held for kids ranging from kindergarten through middle school.

They needed people — especially men — to help out during the weeklong event. So I filled out the form in the bulletin and turned it in after the service.

A week later, Doug, the children’s pastor, stopped me after the morning service.

“Hey Steve” he said. “I heard you planned to help out in VBS this year. I have a group of middle school boys who need a group leader. I tried to get them hooked up with another group leader, but these boys. Could you be the group leader for these boys? All you have to do is show up, listen, and make sure they don’t destroy anything.”

“Sure Doug” I said. “Glad to help.”

“Great! “ he said. “Thanks for stepping up to the plate.”

Meeting The Boys

The following week, I met my group of eight boys. For the next five Summer evenings, we would spend three hours together working through a pre-planned study about Daniel in the Lions Den and how God protects us from harm — even in the worst of circumstances.

We spent the first hour in the church parking lot competing against other groups for points that accumulated into prizes at the end of the week. During the last hour, we met as a group and discussed the story of Daniel using the study guide.

Six boys in my group were well-mannered and went with the flow. But there were two boys who dominated the group conversation: David and John. They reminded me of two characters from the movie “Stand My Me: Chris Chambers and Teddy Duchamp.

David was the Chris Chambers of the group — an emotional boy, but a natural-born leader. When David spoke to the group, his words seemed to touch everyone’s heart, including my own. He facilitated our conversations and helped the other boys open up and talk about themselves and their families. But when I asked David to share about his family, his demeanor changed.

He talked a little about his grandparents and how he spent his summers with them in West Texas. But when he spoke about home, he always looked down at the floor.

John was the Teddy Duchamp of the group — an adventurous boy with a vivid imagination. He turned every situation into a scene from a war movie. Machine guns, grenades, AK-47s — he excelled at sound effects. But when he shared about his family, he spoke about coming home from school each day to an empty home.

His parents were divorced and his mother worked full time, so he spent most of his days alone. When I asked about his father, he didn’t say much. Like David, his family was a mystery.

Change In Lesson Plans

On our first night together, we walked passed a group of middle-school girls huddled in their VBS group. John ran in front of them and yelled, “INCOMING!” and six middle school girls fell to the ground, ducking for cover.

We all laughed, but their group leader didn’t see the humor. I could count on John to add spice to our weekly gatherings.

After huddling together in a classroom, I pulled out our lesson plan for the evening and worked through the questions. Within a few minutes into the study, our conversation changed from the story of Daniel to personal stories about school, girls they were interested in, and other off-topic issues.

More Than Just Showing Up

On our third night together, I noticed something different about the group: Our short conversations about dating and family issues became more than mere conversations — they were heart-to-heart conversations that a father should have with his son.

Sure, they seasoned their talk with adolescent humor and banter, but it was more than that. I sensed they needed direction — someone other than their peers to give them reliable information that would help them move to the next level.

They wanted to grow up, but they didn’t know how.

Doug Tells Me The Truth

On our final night together, we said our good-bye’s, gave each other a high-five, and went home. I would see them again in church, so saying good-bye wasn’t really good-bye.

The following Sunday morning, Doug caught up with me after the service.

“So Steve” Doug said, with a big smile. “Did you enjoy your week?” he asked with an I-know-something-you-don’t-know expression on his face.

“Actually, I did” I replied. “I think they taught me more than I taught them.”

Doug thought for a moment, looked away, and then resumed eye contact with me.

“Steve,” he said, “there’s something I need to tell you about those boys.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

Doug hesitated again, and then said something I wasn’t expecting.

“Those boys don’t have fathers living at home” he replied. “They either left the family and disappeared from their lives or have little contact with them. So basically, you were their surrogate father for a week. The other volunteers didn’t want them in their group because they tend to cause trouble.”

Dave put his right hand on my elbow.

“I was afraid that if I told you, you wouldn’t have volunteered.”

“Well that explains some of their questions” I replied.

“I’m glad you had a good time. Thanks for helping out. We need more men in the church who can lead our kids.”

We shook hands, and then I walked out to my car.

In the proceeding weeks, those boys sat with me during the evening church services. Over time, they made new friends at church and sat with them as a group during the service. But whenever I see them roaming the church hallways, we always high-five each other.

What I Learned About Writing

I learned a lot about myself that week. The experience also taught me two important lessons about writing.

  1. Being vulnerable can help you create an audience. Author Anais Nin wrote that “if you do not breathe through your writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because your culture has no use for it.” It’s easy to stay comfortably numb and ignore the world around you. And that style of living can easily pollute your writing. Over time, writing becomes mechanical, and you can’t figure out why you don’t have an audience. But writing isn’t just telling a story — it’s about living through the story and sharing what you found and how it made you feel. Those boys needed someone to listen and understand. And when we don’t listen to our kids, they stop listening to us.
  2. Getting out of your comfort zone grows your writing skills. Living life beyond your computer desk is how you impact both your writing and your readers. You may try something new — like working with middle schoolers for the first time — and fail miserably. But failure leads you closer to success. When Doug asked me to hang out with eight middle-school boys, all I had to do was show up. But through that experience, I experienced what it’s like to be a parent.

Last week, I was at McDonalds having lunch. When I walked up to the drink dispenser, I hit several dispensers to fill my cup. It was something I learned at VBS. When I finished, a woman standing behind me looked at me and smiled.

“You must have kids” she said.

“Yes, I do” I replied.